Career Coaching Questions:
How to Find a Career Coach
If you’re ready to make a big career change or are trying to figure out how to develop professionally it can be hard to know where to begin. Many people feel lost, even overwhelmed. They then start (wisely) looking for career coaching services to guide them through this major life decision. But they quickly realize how to find a career coach — especially a genuinely good career counselor who can help them dig deep and get clear about their life’s purpose — can be almost as hard as figuring out their career path!
What is a career coach? A career coach is a career development specialist, and good ones have specialized master’s degrees in career counseling and career development. Whether you’re a recent graduate wondering how to turn your passion into a career, a mid-career worker questioning whether you’re on the right path, or someone who wants to take their current career to the next level, working with a good career coach can help you find the clarity and confidence to reinvent your career, and then guide you through the process, step-by-step.
But most career coaches do not have specialized education or training. Really! That’s why online career coaching experiences vary widely from coach to coach, and the results you get will depend heavily on the coach you choose.
Some career coaches will do little more than help you re-write your resume and update your LinkedIn profile, while others work with you to build a deeper level of self-understanding so you can choose a career that feels meaningful and fulfilling. More than anything, career satisfaction reflects how well our work aligns with our personalities, aptitudes, and values, so taking these deeper personal truths into consideration should be an integral part of good, holistic career counseling.
To get the most out of your coaching experience, look for a coach with a track record of helping clients like you connect their career and professional development goals with who they truly are, and then bring them to fruition, using sound, evidence-based strategies.
Because finding this type of career development specialist can be so challenging, I put together this informative article for you in hopes of helping you become more informed and empowered about how to find a career coach. I hope that, by the time we’re done, you’ll know what to look for in a career coach — and what to avoid!
How to Find a Career Coach
Coaches and counselors come with a wide range of specializations, and there are a fair number of “jack-of-all-trades” practitioners who would be happy to coach you with just about anything, whether it’s finding a life partner, or a job, or improving your marriage. But when what you need is help with your career, it’s best to work with someone who really specializes in career coaching, and to avoid coaches with no particular area of focus.
Even better, look for a coach with expertise in exactly what you’re seeking. There are career coaches who work with early career professionals, or with clients who need to make a big pivot later in life, or with people who want to strike out on their own and become self-employed. The more experience a coach has helping people like you, the better your results will be.
Find a Career Counselor With Education and Expertise
What many people interested in finding a career coach do not know is that, unlike the field of psychotherapy, the coaching industry is totally unregulated. Meaning that anyone at all can declare themselves a life coach or a career coach and begin guiding clients through some of the most important decisions of their lives. (More about the shocking truth of coach credentialing here, if you’re interested).
This reality makes it crucial to check a potential new career counselor’s qualifications carefully to make sure working with them will actually be helpful to you, and not a big waste of your time and money.
The best career coaches have graduate degrees in career counseling and professional development, and are essentially licensed therapists who have extensive, specialized training and experience in career counseling. However, those kinds of highly qualified professionals can be rare to find.
Most career coaches do not have any formal training in career counseling or coaching. Some have obtained a coaching certification (which can be accomplished in a weekend), but the majority of career coaches simply have a personal work history in human resources or business.
These “I-worked-in-HR-and-now-I’m-a-career-coach” types can be helpful in some situations. For example, you can expect these coaches to have a solid sense of what hiring managers are looking for, how to write a good resume, and how to perform well in an interview. These “job attainment” skills are important, but unless they’ve completed an additional program in counseling psychology, your work with these coaches may not go much deeper than that.
Vocational counselors: There are other types of career counselors who are more “vocational counselors.” This type of career counseling can be extremely beneficial if you’re just starting out, or are seeking a job rather than a career.
You can access this type of free or low-cost career counseling from a local workforce program or community mental health center. Community college counseling centers or university counseling centers may also have a career counseling department. Especially if you’re about to graduate, or are early in your career and have limited resources, this can be a wonderful resource for you to access.
If you’re going through a workforce center or community mental health center, vocational counseling is often conducted by social workers, case managers, or vocational rehabilitation counselors. While this type of career counseling can be invaluable to the people who use it, and is conducted by people who have education and experience in counseling or social work, it’s typically more focused on helping clients find stable employment. (Versus helping them narrow down tons of options and do deep personal growth work to help them build a career they’re passionate about.)
How to Find a Career Coach: What Are Your Hopes For This?
There are many different kinds of career coaches, and they have different kinds of qualifications and skill sets. For more on this subject, check out “What is a Career Coach?”
One of the best ways to find a career coach is to think about what your hopes are for career coaching, and then look for the type of career coach who has the type of qualifications best suited to help you achieve your specific goals.
If you know what you want to do and need help updating your resume or want to do some interview coaching tips, a career coach with HR experience is a good choice. If you are trying to get stability, connect with a vocational counselor. If you’re about to graduate from college and have a career counseling center at your school that can help you turn that liberal arts degree into a job, that is a fantastic choice.
And, if your goal is to build a career you love that reflects who you truly are, or are seeking growth-oriented professional development, want to develop leadership skills or emotional intelligence, or working through the trauma of a toxic work environment, you should look for a licensed therapist who specializes in evidence-based career counseling, like one of the career development specialists at Growing Self.
This ensures that your coach will have the educational background and training to help you figure yourself out, identify career-adjacent personal growth opportunities, develop authentic clarity, cultivate a career in alignment with your emotional wellbeing and personal life goals, and — most importantly — uncover what you want out of your life. This type of career counseling helps you understand your self and grow, before you start working toward any particular personal and professional goals. Then you can move forward into authentic, whole-life success.
Career Coaching vs. Career Counseling
One of the things that may be confusing when you’re trying to find a career coach (or trying to find a career counselor) is understanding “what is the difference between a career coach and a career counselor??”
At the most basic level, the difference between coaching and counseling is that coaching is action oriented, designed first and foremost to help you set and achieve goals, while counseling is more focused on building personal insights and self awareness.
A professional “career counselor” is more likely to have formal training and a counseling degree than a “career coach” who may not have any formal training beyond their own professional experiences. However, the terms “career counseling” and “career coaching” are often used interchangeably in practice. And it is also true that someone calling themselves a “career counselor” may not have a counseling background.
You are more likely to find “career counselors” in college career counseling centers, community mental health settings, and workforce centers. A career counselor does not have to be a licensed therapist, and they do not have to have a degree in career counseling specifically. To say you’re a “career counselor” is not a formal title, it’s a description of the service you’re providing. (Like a “premarital counselor” can be a priest or a rabbi — premarital counseling doesn’t require a degree in marriage and family therapy, sadly).
There is often not much practical difference between the type of experience you have in “career coaching” vs “career counseling.” The terms are frequently interchangeable, but some practitioners use these labels more intentionally in efforts to communicate their approach.
If you are looking for a career coach (or counselor) it can be helpful to look for the sweet spot between these two disciplines. An approach that leans too far to the “counseling” side (for example, if you connect with a therapist who took one career counseling class, but doesn’t really specialize in career counseling) may focus excessively on your feelings about your boss, or your fears about earning enough money, or your doubts about being able to accomplish what you really want to accomplish. These personal insights are interesting, but unless they’re paired with meaningful action, they won’t produce real world results for you.
On the other hand, career coaching that doesn’t dive deep enough — like the kind you may get from an HR professional or job coach who’s exclusively focused on the “how” and not the “why” behind your career goals — is unlikely to bring about the internal shifts you need to make before big, external changes become possible.
When you work with a licensed career counselor who is also a qualified career coach, you get the best of both worlds. They’ll help you find the answers to important questions, dive deep into your personality, values, and strengths, and then create a step-by-step plan for meaningful career growth based on what you find.
Whether you work with a coach or a counselor, or someone who uses a hybrid approach, no one will be able to tell you what to do with your career. The way you spend your working life is simply too important to be directed by anyone but you. But a career coach with the right background can help you get in touch with what makes you feel fulfilled, engaged, and happy, and then guide you through the process of creating the life you want, step-by-step.
Why Find a Career-Focused Therapist?
While making a career change or trying to figure out how to master the next level of your professional development (like becoming a good leader) may look from the outside like a simple matter of moving from point A to point B, visible external changes are often built on deep, internal work. A therapist specializing in career coaching has robust expertise and experience in working with people around career issues — but on a deeper level. They can not only help you make a plan to land your dream job, or become better at what you do, they can help you bust through the internal barriers that have left you feeling stuck or dissatisfied in the first place.
Holistic Career Coaching
A career-focused therapist can take a holistic approach to your career growth, working with you to understand what you value, what work aligns with those values, and how that work should fit into your life as a whole.
You may dream of becoming a globetrotting photographer, for example, but if you value family above all, a job that keeps you away from your kids for weeks at a time would probably be a bad fit. The proper career-relationship balance is different for everyone, and it changes throughout our working lives. A holistic career coach can help you find the balance that’s right for you, at every stage of life.
Therapists-slash-coaches are also better equipped than coaches who lack counseling experience to help you improve your working relationships, leading to greater professional success and a more satisfying work life. Without this relational perspective, it can be hard to determine whether your stress or dissatisfaction on the job is due to a toxic workplace, or if it’s a sign that you need to strengthen your own interpersonal skills. Less qualified coaches may also not be aware of how work stress can damage personal relationships, or what steps you need to take to prevent this.
We all know some incredibly talented and hardworking people who aren’t getting ahead because they’re not politically savvy, they have trouble coping with stress, or they struggle with effective communication. (And hey, who among us hasn’t had some work to do in all of these areas!) The path of growth in these cases is not jettisoning your career or looking for a different job, but rather working to build emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence a skill-set that everyone can benefit from strengthening, both at work and in our personal lives. When you’ve intentionally developed your emotional intelligence you become better able to manage stress and stay calm, understand what you need in order to be healthy and well, understand what others are feeling, and communicate more effectively. In fact, many savvy employers prioritize “soft skills,” like how well you can lead a discussion or manage clients, over technical abilities, particularly when it comes to selecting people for leadership positions.
Taking part in some emotional intelligence coaching with a good career coach will help you tune into your own feelings and those of your coworkers, so that you can communicate effectively, navigate conflict and setbacks, and build positive working relationships with others. A happy by-product of this professional growth work is that it will help you more happiness, emotional wellbeing, and healthy relationships outside of work too.
Personal and Professional Growth
There is an undeniable intersection between our personal selves and our professional selves. There are many work-related situations where it’s much more helpful to have a true career “counselor” (aka, “therapist”) on your side rather than a resume-writing career coach.
For example, when someone is experiencing burnout at work, there can be a healing process that requires a lot of personal introspection, as well as on-the-job changes. This is when working with a licensed therapist who specializes in career development, rather than a self-professed coach with no relevant counseling experience, becomes essential.
Another common situation are people who show up for career coaching hoping to learn a few productivity hacks… and not realizing that they actually have undiagnosed ADHD. If you often miss deadlines and feel scattered in too many directions, for example, it requires a counselor with both a career and therapy background to help you sort through whether you just need some help becoming more organized — or whether the issue is more pervasive.
It’s also true that mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, and PTSD can have a big impact on your work…. and that, especially if you’re in a toxic workplace, your job can impact your emotional wellbeing, and your relationships too. A licensed therapist who also offers coaching will have the educational background to differentiate between problems like these and more run-of-the-mill career challenges, so you can get treatment if you need it.
Even more commonly, many people find that aspects of their professional lives are the “experiential playground” on which many personal development opportunities emerge. For example, since we spend so much of our time and energy on our jobs, it’s understandable that our way of relating to other people and to ourselves becomes apparent while at work. If you’re prone to self-limiting thoughts, or are perfectionistic, that’s going to show up in your workplace. Working with a career counselor who has a background as a therapist can help you work through these tendencies productively, in order to grow both personally and professionally.
Evidence Based Career Counseling and Coaching
Finally, a career coach with a background in counseling has the skills and education to apply effective, evidence-based strategies to your coaching work. They may incorporate elements of career construction theories, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness training, emotional intelligence coaching, and other research-backed approaches that are proven to help you grow at work and beyond.
Unfortunately, coaches without a formal counseling background often invent their own coaching “systems,” based on no research whatsoever. These systems are unlikely to be effective at helping you grow on meaningful levels, and taking bad advice may even leave you feeling worse about your work than you did before coaching. Whoever you choose to work with, make sure their approach is evidence-based.
Find a Career Coach That Specializes in What You Need:
What Does a Career Coach Do?
We’ve discussed different types of career coaches, and what you can expect from working with a true career counselor. But in order to find a career coach, it’s also important to have a clear understanding of what a career coach does. That way, when you’re interviewing prospective career coaches, you can know what questions to ask (and know if you’re dealing with a professional or not).
Career coaches can do many different things, and how they seek to help you depends on what your goals for career coaching are. However here are some of the most common career coaching services:
If you’re just getting started in your career and not sure what path you’d like to take, or if you hate your current job but have no idea what you’d like to do instead, your coaching sessions may focus on career exploration to help you discover what kind of work would be a good fit, based on your personality, talents, and values.
During the career exploration process, your career coach will give you assessments to understand your aptitudes and interests, and where those areas overlap. You may think forensic accounting sounds interesting, for example, but if you despised high school math classes, it’s unlikely to be a satisfying career path for you.
When exploring possible careers, it’s important to consider how the day-to-day reality of the work will compliment (or clash with) your personality. If you’re a social butterfly, you may thrive on teamwork, while if you’re more of an introvert, you may be happier in an environment that allows you to be pretty independent, for instance. To help evaluate how well a potential career suits you, your career coach will likely give you a personality assessment.
Your career coach will also assess your values, to make sure the career you choose reflects what’s most important to you. Maybe doing work that allows ample room for creative expression is what you value the most. Or maybe, at this stage of your career, financial success is where you place the highest value. Either priority is valid, but they’ll likely lead you in two very different directions. To make sure you’re on the right path, you’ve first got to be in touch with what you care about the most.
Next, your career coach will help you connect your career goals with other goals for your life. Maybe you’d like to have a large family someday, or travel the world, or live off-the-grid in rural Vermont. Whatever your life goals, you’ll need to think about how different career paths will help or hinder them, where you’re willing to make tradeoffs and where you’re not.
During career exploration, a career coach will also take a careful look at your history, to understand how your career goals may have been influenced by your environment and the people closest to you. They may ask questions like, what did you want to be when you were a kid? What did your parents want you to study in college? When you think about your dream career, do you imagine external approval, or private happiness? We all absorb messages about what we “should” be from our families of origin and society at large. When deciding what to do with your life, it’s important to separate these messages from your own needs and desires.
Finally, if your goal for coaching is career exploration, your career coach will help you research professions that may be a good fit, based on the deeper level of self-awareness you’ve gained through the coaching process so far.
If you’re in the “career exploration” phase and trying to find a career coach, be sure to ask about their career assessment methods, and how (specifically) their approach to career counseling will help you get clarity, and congruence. If they can’t articulate their method, you might need to keep looking for the right career coach.
Identifying a Career Path
Once you’ve settled on a career that sparks your interest, and aligns with your personality, values, and strengths, a good career coach will help you create a plan to get from where you are now to where you’d like to be. You may start coaching from this place, or you may get here after exploring different career options with your coach. Either way, the next step is laying out a career path, and it’s a vital step in reaching your ultimate goal.
If you’d like to be a member of the U.S. Congress, your first step won’t be running to unseat your current representative. You may start by volunteering on a city council campaign, or joining a local community board. If you’d like to be a software developer, you’ll probably need to take a coding class before sending your resume to Google or Facebook. Whatever the goal, you need a step-by-step plan for reaching it, and a good career coach can help you create that plan.
When you’re trying to find a career coach who can help you create a step-by-step plan for how to get from here to there (quite possibly, over the course of years), it’s important to ask about their experience and expertise in helping their clients research options and plan a career path into the future.
While high-quality career coaching doesn’t begin and end with landing a job, building up your job attainment skills can be an important part of the process.
If your past work is wildly different from what you’d like to do next, you may need some help positioning that experience on your resume. If you’re trying to bounce back after a layoff, you may need some help representing a long gap in employment. A career coach can provide feedback on your resume, or may even recommend a resume writing service to help you pitch yourself to potential employers.
You may also need some help with your interviewing skills, your LinkedIn game, or even with staying motivated during your job search. Whatever job attainment skills you need to strengthen, a good career coach will be there to assist you, every step of the way.
It’s also true that for many people, landing the job they want (and feeling happy and satisfied in the position that they attain) needs to go a little deeper. For example, are you not applying to certain positions because you’re struggling with imposter syndrome, anxiety, low self-esteem, or have a lot of self-limiting beliefs? Have you had bad experiences with employers in the past that make you feel a little hesitant to potentially get into another weird situation? Are you applying and interviewing but not making that last cut… and honestly don’t know why?
These are situations related to “getting a job” that actually have roots that can go deeper than having a nice resume and knowing what to say in an interview. (It’s like dating coaching: Creating a healthy new relationship is not the same thing as having a good online dating profile, or knowing what to say on a first date).
When you’re looking to find a career coach to help you land a job, remember that we all have blind spots and that it can be impossible to know what we don’t know — especially about ourselves. Ask your prospective career coach if they have experience in helping their clients identify inner obstacles that may impact their career, as well as the expertise to help them successfully move through them — so that they can move forward.
Even when you’re in a career that feels fulfilling and rewarding overall, it can be easy to get bogged down in your current role and to feel unsure about what’s holding you back from a higher level of satisfaction.
Perhaps you’re on a career trajectory that you began a long time ago, and that used to be fulfilling… but now you’re bored. Maybe you took time off for parenting or other life circumstances, and need to buff yourself up to get back into the game. Maybe you have a new boss or coworker relationship that makes your formerly enjoyable job not so fun anymore. Maybe you are realizing that your career is negatively impacting your personal life and relationships and want to set some different boundaries with your employer, but aren’t sure how.
There are so many ever-changing variables when it comes to the intersection of our personal selves and our professional selves. Careers are not static. Neither are you. Your professional trajectory twists and turns, and you grow and evolve too. Just like any relationship, you need to re-evaluate yourself and your career from time to time, in order to course-correct and keep it positive.
If you’ve hit a plateau at work, working with a career coach on professional development can help you create the change you need to start moving forward. It may be that you need to work on interpersonal skills, like communicating with tact, understanding your own feelings and those of others, or leading effectively. You may also need to learn how to handle difficult feelings that come up in the workplace, like anger, stress, or burnout. Or you may benefit from working on time management skills, strategies to stay productive, or from learning to cultivate grit.
A career coach can help you identify the areas where you need to develop both personally and professionally, and then give you the tools to develop them, so you can continue to grow throughout your career.
If you would like to explore the intersection of your “personal self” and “professional self” with a career counselor, it will be important to find a career coach who can help you do that in a meaningful way.
There are two risks to watch out for when interviewing prospective career coaches for their competence to do deeper work with you: One is for a career coach (usually an HR type or a strict career-only counselor, like a vocational counselor or college counseling center counselor) to shut you down when you try to take the conversation deeper and refer you to therapy. The other risk is to connect with an over-confident and under-qualified, self-anointed “coach” who would be happy to talk with you about everything…. but who may not know how to help you grow.
So, if you want a deeper experience with a career counselor, make it a point to find a career coach who has a counseling background, and who has well developed strategies to help you grow and move forward.
A huge area of professional development for many people is making the transition from being worker (or “solo-preneur”) to becoming a team leader. No matter how good you are at the technical aspects of the work itself, in order to be a truly good leader and effective manager, you need to learn and grow.
Partnering with a good career counselor — particularly one who has experience in leadership coaching, organizational systems, and emotional intelligence — can help you climb the steep learning curve that becoming an authentically good leader requires.
There are many, many options for “leadership coaching.” There are charismatic business owners who have written books and who offer online leadership programs, and depending on what you’re looking for, these can absolutely be helpful.
And, it’s also true that the “hero’s journey” of becoming a trustworthy leader worth following is often more about understanding ourselves and how we relate to others than it is about implementing new systems. Working with an experienced therapist who specializes in career development and leadership coaching can help you grow on deep and enduring levels, and become the leader that you want to be.
Find Your Career Coach
One last word of big-sisterly advice for finding a career coach: Pay attention to how you feel. In therapy, the relationship between client and therapist is the single most important factor in how effective the treatment will be. Career coaching works much the same, so finding someone who you work well with is vital. It doesn’t matter how fancy, or well educated, or experienced a career coach is if you don’t feel comfortable with them.
Look for a coach who offers a free consultation before you commit, and pay attention to how you feel when speaking with them for the first time. Do you feel open and at ease, or guarded and anxious? Do you feel energized by the conversation, or a bit bored? Do you feel like they’re more interested in telling you their story, or hearing yours?
If you find a career coach who you feel that you could develop a positive and close working relationship with, you’ll have a better shot at finding the right fit — and having the positive and powerful experience that you deserve.
I hope that this information helped you get clarity about what types of career coaches are out there, what kind of experience you’re hoping to have, and how to find a career coach who can help you move forward.
Your partner in growth,
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
Meet a Few of Our Career Development Specialists
The career counselors of Growing Self have specialized education and training and years of experience in helping people achieve their personal and professional goals. We use only evidence-based strategies that have been proven by research to help you get clarity and direction, have better relationships, feel happier, and design your ideal life.
This website is devoted to your wellbeing and offers loads of free information and actionable advice that you can start using today to create positive change in your life. Browse around to meet our experts, get free advice on our blog, listen to a podcast, or take our “How Healthy is Your Relationship” quiz. Or, if the time is right, you can schedule a free consultation with any of us to talk about your situation — and, most importantly — your hopes for your future.